We poked around the old corn crib, commenting on the giant John Deere which had been reclaimed by the land. I tried to imagine a mini Kegger tearing through the fields, stopping only to lick the “clean” areas of the cow licks. (Yes, those would be the same areas that the cows chose to lick, also.)
We worked our way towards the barn. The path to the side door was quite overgrown, but we managed to hunt and peck the flat stones that still lay amongst the weeds. Mustache Man and his bare feet slogged right through the gravel and burrs to jump ahead of us and wrench open the door. He immediately ducked as a barn swallow dived towards the light.
“Wow,” was all Mom could say.
As our eyes readjusted, we moved deeper into the building, stepping carefully around musty piles of hay and disintegrating farm equipment. There were four shafts from the loft above. The older boys would use these shafts to pitch bales down to the cattle for feeding. My cousin Ronny once took a nasty fall through one of those shafts. He doesn’t remember the fall so much as his father, my Uncle Jim, consoling him and demanding he stop crying so as not to upset Herman.
Herman was not the warm and fuzzy type of man that I equate with the word father. In those early years on the farm, he was more of a man to be feared rather than a father to be loved. Mom described him as a “tough devil” that none of the kids would dare disobey. The threat of “I’m going to tell Dad” carried far more weight than in the families I’m used to. I can see how the stress of feeding and clothing those nine Middleton siblings would cause a man to loose some of his patience. It’s hard for me to reconcile those images with my memories of him beaming his thin blue smile at the grand kids in between bites of scrambled eggs covered in ketchup.
Ronny wasn’t the only one to suffer injury in the barn. Mom still swears she took a tumble through one of those straw shafts. The kids used to play in that loft all the time, building forts out of bales of hay like gigantic Lego blocks. They’d climb up onto the rafters, and swing wildly, flinging themselves and assuming the loose bunches hay would cushion their falls.
The tippy top of the hay loft housed a system of pulleys and a gigantic hay fork to lift the bales into the loft. Herman would climb up to the window and lower the metal spider-like fork down to the ground. The fork was affixed to a long length of rope that wove through the pulley system, back down to the ground, and then attached to the back of a tractor. Once the kids filled the fork with up to eight bales of hay, another one of the siblings would drive the tractor forward, pulling the hay up to window level where Herman would pull the fork back into the loft.
The back room of the barn had wide doors to corral the cattle as they were herded into the barn. Smaller doors divided the large open room from the front area partially filled with smaller stanchions for feeding and milking the cows.
They really only had one milking cow. Uncle Chuck was often responsible for milking her. He’d sit on his stool and the barn cats and kittens would all line up to watch the procedure. As he filled the metal pail, he’d occasionally point a teat towards an eager cat. The gato would open her mouth as he pulled down, shooting a stream of milk directly into her face, which she happily lapped up. He’d then redirect the stream back into the pail as the other cats mewed for a turn.
Sometimes the kids would have to feed the small calves. They had a fake udder that fit over a full pail of milk enabling the calves to suckle. I seem to remember one of my clients and the owner of Hustler discussing a similar device he was considering purchasing for his wait staff.
According to Mom, there was only one cow that ever became anything more than just another cow. Her name was Boots, and she was a feeder cow. She had a back as flat as Keira Knightely, and would let the kids climb on and ride her like a horse. As Mom tells it, the kids didn’t eat much the season Bootsy was slaughtered.
It was an incredibly tall barn, especially come painting time. As we climbed back out to the driveway to meet the others, Uncle Chuck looked up at the weather-vane atop the barn.
“I used to have to paint up there,” he mused with wonder and a tidge of disgust. “I absolutely hated it, but Dad said it had to be me. He’d say, ‘If you fall, you lose just your life. If I fall, a whole family starves.'”
That’s all the farm-itude I have in me. Here are a few other images though to flesh out your imagination. It really was magical to visit.